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Review: A Play With a Crude Name and a Powerfully Dark View

I suppose this is the place to note that, since I am not a character in this work but an employee of The New York Times, I shall be referring to this play only as “A.” (The full title places an Anglo-Saxon adjective before the “A,” one commonly used on cable television but not considered fit for print here.)

In any case, “A” is a dark, didactic entertainment deliberately in the mode of Bertolt Brecht, the German master of theatrical alienation, and a playwright who has always been difficult for American theater artists to get right. And this is Brecht as filtered through Ms. Parks, the author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Topdog/Underdog” and one of the most inventive, eclectic and uncategorizable dramatists working.

As if those elements weren’t daunting enough, Ms. Parks has described “A” (accurately) as a “revenge tragedy,” referring to the grisly tales of lust and carnage popular in the Jacobean era. And she has peppered the script not only with her own sardonic songs but also stretches of dialogue in a foreign language she invented for the discussion of matters gynecological.

“A” is also a riff on Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Scarlet Letter,” that great 1850 novel about Puritan guilt and repression. (“A” is one of two plays by Ms. Parks inspired by Hawthorne’s masterwork, both of which are being presented by Signature this season under the rubric “The Red Letter Plays.” The other, “In the Blood,” opens next week.)


‘_______ A’

Christine Lahti and Raphael Nash Thompson in a scene from the revival of Suzan-Lori Parks’s play.

By SIGNATURE THEATER on Publish Date September 11, 2017.


It would be all too easy for any interpreters of “A” to be overwhelmed by the play’s disparate influences and intellectual self-consciousness. That was what appeared to have happened to the lugubrious production I saw at the Public Theater in 2003.

Despite the haunting presence of its star, S. Epatha Merkerson, that version seemed to plod, stooped under its heavy cargo of significance. In contrast, this latest incarnation is light on its feet – quick, sharp and perfectly paradoxical. Barring a few clunking instances of cartoonish satire, Ms. Bonney’s production is as harrowing as it is witty.

Its songs, performed by an ace cast of performers who double as their own musicians, are choice and chilling pleasures. And as a study in primal needs and capitalist corruption, it is probably the best American production I’ve seen of a Brecht play that wasn’t written by Brecht.

The play’s title character is indeed a character – that is, a letter. You may remember that in “The Scarlet Letter,” set in the Massachusetts Bay Colony in the 17th-century, Hester Prynne was forced to wear an “A” (for adultery) for having had a child out of wedlock. The “A” that has been branded onto the chest of Hester Smith, Ms. Lahti’s character, stands for Aborter.

Terminating pregnancies is Hester’s job and her identity, and she wears her “A” – always visible through a hole in her dress – as both a badge of dishonor and her professional shingle. Her presence in the town – a nameless, out-of-time place – is regarded as both disgusting and essential, rather like that of her best friend, Canary Mary (Ms. Kalukango), the well-paid mistress of the fatuous and tyrannical Mayor (Marc Kudisch).


Third from left: Mr. Kudisch, as a scribe, with the bounty hunters Ruibo Qian, J. Cameron Barnett and Ben Horner in the Suzan-Lori Parks play.

Richard Termine for The New York Times

The plot is propelled by Hester’s desire to reclaim her son, whom she hasn’t set eyes on since he was sent to prison as a little boy for stealing meat from a rich person’s house, and to exact revenge on the snitch who put him there. That would be the girl who has grown up to become the town’s First Lady (Elizabeth Stanley), who festers in a loveless marriage with the Mayor and wants nothing more than a child of her own.

With its shadow-shrouded wooden set (by Rachel Hauck, lighted by Jeff Croiter) and archetypal costumes (by Emilio Sosa), “A” has the look of a noir fairy tale. It is steeped, visually and verbally, in Brothers Grimmsian images of slaughter and torture, of the hunt and the sadistic thrill of the kill.

Hester’s suitor, the Butcher (a winning Raphael Nash Thompson, whose extensive catalog of crimes committed by his daughter is a high point), makes killing animals as painless as possible. The three figures known as the Hunters (J. Cameron Barnett, Ruibo Qian and Ben Horner) revel in protracting the deaths of their prey, who are escaped convicts. That’s the category into which Hester’s son, now known as the Monster (and played with sensuous authority by Mr. Dixon), will eventually fall.

The cast brings humanizing shades of pain, greed and longing to symbolic figures, without ever tearing the play’s somber folk-tale fabric. And the songs – which owe a heavy debt to Brecht’s immortal collaborator, Kurt Weill – strike a resonant balance between poetry and proclamation. (Who knew Ms. Lahti, whose fierce portrait of ravaging maternal obsession is up to her usual high standards, could sing, too?)

Ms. Parks is best known for her dense, expressionistic studies of black lives trapped in the nightmare of American history. “A,” with its color- and gender-blind casting, is untethered by topical sociology. But those looking for parallels to an angry contemporary world divided between rich and poor won’t have to strain.

That the land of “A” seems as timeless and enduringly relevant as that in a fable by Aesop or La Fontaine may be cause for lamentation. But when a production is as assured and stylish as this one, there’s joy in the moaning.

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